3 min read

It’s so easy to sound like an idiot.

If you go on Facebook right now, odds are there is a trending story based on something someone said. And with tools like Twitter, it’s easier than ever to ‘say’ something you probably shouldn’t – and those are the things that really follow you around. It’s much more difficult to sound smart.

I have a natural inclination to abstain from conversation a lot of the time. Recently, it’s become clear to me that it’s served me well, and I’ve made some personal “rules” or goals to keep it that way:

1.) Avoid arguments. It is impossible to win an argument. Generally, “winning” comes with building some resentment in the other party. Disagreements can and should exist, and different viewpoints can be discussed with open minds, but once it becomes an “argument” I get out.

2.) Don’t volunteer opinions. This is hard, because as humans we care most about ourselves and our opinions. I try to avoid giving any opinions without being specifically asked. Why? I’m not sure really; maybe that shows that someone cares to actually hear it. I certainly form opinions (or can do so on the spot) but they are kind of like excuses and assholes.

3.) Don’t speak unless I have something worth saying. Is what I’m about to say going to add any substance to the conversation? Is it new or interesting or valuable information? Am I even sure that what I’m saying is accurate? If not, maybe just shut my pie hole.

4.) Be succinct. If I have a thought to express, I express it one time (i.e. I avoid saying the same thing over and over in different words). My rule of thumb is try to express the thought without having to take another breath.

5.) Be exact. It’s more important to communicate clearly than to impress with your vocabulary or be frilly, and being economical with language is so sexy. I hate repeating myself anyway – so I try to just spit it out right the first time.

6.) Don’t use the word “actually” in conversation. For example, if someone asks “What have you been up to?” we tend to have this natural cadence of saying “oh I’ve actually been doing a lot of [whatever].” When I say “actually” it either tells you that you should be impressed or surprised but who cares – just state it and own it.

7.) Avoid filler words and sounds. Silence is so much cleaner than “uh,” “um,” “erm,” etc.

8.) Avoid saying “I” whenever possible. This doubles for emailing/written communication as well – keep the emphasis on the other party and avoid talking about myself unless asked.

9.)  Don’t talk shit about anyone. This is the most important one! When I talk shit, it always gets shared, it gets around, and it bites me somehow. Just don’t do it. 

10.) Pause before speaking to think. This helps me think through all the above and prevents me from blurting out the idiot garbage. It also shows that I truly listened and are being thoughtful about what was just said to me.

The result of this approach is having a conversation that is much more focused on the other individual(s). People love to talk about themselves, and they love when people listen, and you’re accomplishing both of those things. Suddenly, you’ll be thought of as a great conversationalist! It’s endearing.

I really enjoy being the third party in conversations because of this. Very frequently, I don’t have anything worth saying. But, I can shut up, listen, and contribute where appropriate. It’s in these interactions that I find myself learning the most. Maybe that makes me hard to hang out with one-on-one…I’d like to hear your feedback on that.

Results may vary. But when in doubt, just shut up.